We are delighted to say that Grant Brereton has taken the time to write an article for us to share some of his personal experiences, good and bad, on his journey to becoming a show-winning poultry breeder.
Grant has a lifetime of experience breeding poultry, starting with some Light Sussex chickens when he was a child to now being one of the leading experts in the country on genetics and breeding of Wyandottes.
Well-known in the world of showing and breeding poultry, he is probably best known as the editor of Fancy Fowl Magazine, where he is a regular contributor on many aspects of chicken keeping from basic husbandry to genetics.
Grant has written several books on breeding poultry based on his many years of trial and error, including '21st Century Poultry Breeding', 'Breeding for Success' and his latest book, 'The Broody Hen Handbook' is available on Amazon. In the book you will find his tips for successful breeding as well as mistakes to avoid - a must-read for all newbies to hatching!
It is so obvious when we think about it ... chickens don't lay eggs for our benefit
It was summer of 2017, and we had not long moved into our dream house. The lawn was covered in chicken coops containing broody hens and chicks of various ages.
One day, a good friend called round, and observing all of these busy coops, said, ‘you make it look easy!’ In the glorious evening heat, I had to stop and take in his words for a moment. Hatching under broody hens was something I just ‘did’ and had been doing for a long time.
But then all the memories of the bad times and the disasters came flooding back. I was happy with the compliment, but had to be honest with my friend, informing him that it hadn’t always been so easy!
My friend is a renowned and respected poultry breeder, exhibitor, and judge, who has won a national show with his famed stock. So it proves that even the most accomplished of poultry people can still struggle when it comes to using broody hens successfully.
Three disasters that stayed with me…
1. The Quitter…
Around 1999, we lived on a smallholding that had the luxury of spacious outbuildings. One such outbuilding had an open front and was rather long with a pent roof. Dad let me use this building to try a broody hen in. Her sitting quarters would be made up of wooden pallets constructed into a rather large square. She would have room to get up and feed, drink and refresh herself.
The hen in question was a large Orpington cross, that looked quite similar to a Buff Orpington. She was on loan from friend Julie Brixy and was very broody! (Julie had made use of her sisters with much success).
My ‘on loan’ broody sat tight for about two weeks, when one day I inspected her to find her nowhere near the nest, with the whole area scratched up, freezing cold eggs (the ones I could find), and most perplexingly, the hen not appearing remotely broody.
She was quickly returned to her owner, and the eggs candled to see what ‘would have been.’ Never in my life had I wanted eggs to be infertile so much, but to my absolute horror, and learning the true meaning of irony that day, every single one of the ten eggs I could find was fertile!
I had no thoughts about trying to rescue the eggs at the time. Quite why I didn’t transfer them immediately to my incubator still baffles me today. In hindsight, I can only think that I believed if eggs beneath a broody hen became cold, the developing chick would instantly die.
I now know this ‘not to be the case’ - it is always worth trying to save developing eggs that have been cold a few hours. But anyway, dismayed, I returned to the house and tried to move on.
A few days later, my rather annoyed Father would accost me and ask how I’d disposed of the unsuccessful broody eggs. Very ashamed, I recall answering that I hadn’t yet.
Of course, he already knew that, because our dog had found them, proceeded to eat every last one, and then was letting out just about the worst doggy flatulence you could ever hope not to experience! This lasted for about 48 hours and we were seriously worried about him, but thankfully it passed (the flatulence). Needless to say, I was in bad books for a while, but it was a big lesson learned.
2. Under Attack ...
I’m quite ashamed to admit this one… because really, I believe I should have known better. So around 2006, I was renting land from a turkey farmer for £40 a month. It was mainly the shed on the land that had drawn my interest. It was approximately 20 x 10ft in size and was previously a poultry shed.
At the far end of this wooden building I had constructed a plywood shelf that would be the base for my show pens, and that I could build pens beneath. At the far right end of the shelf was a bit of spare room, so I constructed a little ‘broody area’ using some bricks.
Skipping ahead a little… a Goldtop broody was in situ and all seemed to be going well, right up until hatching. I would arrive on ‘hatch day’ morning to find a couple of chicks hatched and several ‘pipping.’ Great news! I went off to work with a smile on my face and planned to return later that afternoon. But what greeted me was a horror show!
I arrived to find another non-broody laying hen in the nest forcefully squashed next to my broody. All chicks had clearly hatched but had been fatally attacked by the invader. These were quite important chicks, but even if they hadn’t been, I’d still be absolutely crushed.
No-one should have to witness such a sight, and no chicks should ever face merciless attack like that. Again, ironically, the broody and her new brood were just hours away from being moved to a completely safe coop.
You can’t imagine a woman attacking another woman’s baby, but this happens in nature. Chickens have no empathy whatsoever with chicks unless they are broody themselves, and even then, they can be temperamental, depending on the stage of broodiness they’re at, or the temperament of the individual in question.
I knew at the time that laying hens have no empathy for chicks, but I figured this broody hen was far enough out of sight, and that the laying hens had their own nest boxes near the entrance, which was the opposite end of the shed. It felt so desperately unlucky.
Not long after my grim discovery, the farmer came out and wasn’t surprised by what had occurred. He told me there’d been an almighty commotion some half an hour before I arrived. The ‘least he could do’ was put the kettle on, as he tried to talk me round in his kitchen.
3. Freefalling ...
This tale is particularly sad… Around the year 2000, I had gifted an acquaintance (who would clearly become a good friend) some Blue Laced Wyandotte hatching eggs. He was over the moon that one of this own laying hens had gone broody and was keen to hatch some beautiful Wyandottes.
I’m not sure why, but I must have taken it for granted that my new friend had purposeful sitting quarters for his broody hen, and he didn’t seem to be asking for advice, so all seemed in capable hands.
For some unknown reason (perhaps she was the boss), but my friend’s broody was left to sit in a raised nest box in an old style poultry house, and fortunately was completely undisturbed by the laying hens, who opted to use the other available nest boxes to lay their eggs.
At the time, I still had no idea that his broody was situated so high, when my friend rang me one evening in delight as he could hear cheeping coming from beneath her. I agreed to call round the following morning (about 9 miles away), to inspect that all was well, and to set up a feeder and drinker.
‘Tomorrow’ was soon upon us, the sun was shining, and it was around 10am that I was greeted by the Steinbacher geese on the front garden pond. The whole area was surrounded by trees and was the kind of country house I could only dream of.
I was dearly looking forward to one of my friend’s special ‘home roast’ filter coffees and seeing the chicks. As I approached the house, I could see he was already in the old-fashioned poultry house, but with a very glum look on his face.
I wondered what had happened because I wasn’t anticipating the broody to be in there. But as I peeked my head in, I could see her sat in a raised nest box, with a lip of only an inch or so, and a cluster of dead chicks on the floor beneath. He had only just made this grim discovery. The drop itself might not have killed them, but the chilling would certainly have done so, even if the other occupants had left them alone. “I wish you’d told me where she was situated!”… “So do I”, came the reply.
So scarred by the experience, my friend would later switch to incubators, so another load of Wyandotte eggs were set (some of his and some of mine). Three weeks later, came a gleeful phone call, “90% of chicks have hatched!”
However, sadly the heat bulb blew in the brooder on day 2 and all chicks chilled and died overnight. He saw the irony immediately, “that would never happen under a broody hen!”
I could write a book
Fortunately, there have been many more success stories than failures, with a few ‘near misses’ in the mix too.
One ‘near miss’ (2001) was when, for some reason, I decided to let a broody Barnevelder (who would soon be named ‘flakey’) continue sitting on a cluster of eggs I had entrusted her to hatch. I had left at 5.30am in the morning, for my 12-hour work shift, but on returning Mum would report that ‘flakey’ had been off the nest for at least 8 hours that day (she had been sat tight for a week).
She was the only Barnevelder I had at the time, so Mum couldn’t have been mistaken. She was back on the eggs by now, and after candling them, all eight were fertile. I had mixed feelings about it… that ‘great-but-it’s-too-late’ sensation is a real stomach turner.
The eggs were comprised of 2 Barnevelders, 2 Friesian Fowl, 2 Silver Pencilled Wyandottes, and 2 Silver Spangled Hamburghs. The Wyandotte and Hamburgh eggs were particularly important to me, as there weren’t many around then, and no social media, making contacts hard-won.
I recall ‘leaving her to it’ for the remainder of the duration (which she did determinedly), just to prove to myself that the eggs would never hatch.
But as time went by, I began to get a feeling that something ‘magic’ was occurring and there might just be a chance of some chicks. But, as you may imagine, on ‘hatch day’ absolutely nothing was even pipping. I felt dismayed, even knowing they would be 8 hours behind schedule at the very least.
With my earlier experience of not disposing of unsuccessful eggs immediately, I was leaving nothing to chance this time; our beloved dog would not get these!
The broody would go back with the other hens, and it would be chalked up to another failure. Such is life. But before I could reunite my broody with her friends
and discard her eggs, that evening I was asked for a sudden favour. Could I pick up my sister from the airport? Off I set and forgot about the broody Barnevelder, only finding it ironic how (apart from that one day) she sat like a trouper. Would I use her again? I didn’t know.
The following morning I approached my unsuccessful broody’s coop to put her back with her cohort, only to discover, amazingly, all 8 eggs cheeping and with cracks in. I couldn’t believe it…These were the eggs that would have been thrown out the night previous; what good fortune that I was asked to do that airport run (although it really didn’t feel like it at the time).
When many of my friends heard that I was writing a book on broody hens, it caused quite a bit of banter and humour. They simply couldn’t believe that a book could be made of the subject, because they, like me, had been used to only a tiny amount of coverage on the subject in old poultry books; even a page worth of information on broody hens was good.
However, on seeing the finished article, many of the same friends agreed that it was ‘most certainly needed!’ Personally, I am very pleased with the photographs in The Broody Hen Hand Book, many of which are my own, and the advice offered is genuine and hard-won.
I’ve been at this a long time and as detailed above, have certainly made my share of mistakes along the way.
A broody hen can be unsuccessful at any point, and it’s not necessarily the fault of her keeper. But what we can do, as poultry keepers, is control things to minimise disasters and maximise chances of success.
Even as I write these notes, I have a broody Silkie who seems ‘otherwise excellent’ but when she leaves her nest for daily refreshment, just before sitting back on her eggs, defecates all over them… whilst I’m there frantically trying to clean them with kitchen roll.
You simply cannot legislate for everything that can go wrong, but there are many ways of stacking odds in your favour for a successful hatch.
One such method of increasing the chances of a successful hatch is isolating your broody hen in a purpose-built broody coop, which completely eliminates the disasters experienced in true stories 2 and 3 above.
I have been following Flyte so Fancy for a long time and have always been impressed with their quality and well-thought-out designs.
They clearly understand poultry and the needs of poultry keepers. Their well-made Broody Coop with extendable run is perfect for your broody needs.
Here's to your success
Grant Brereton, 2021
All images (except of Grant Brereton) are ©Flyte so Fancy